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GALLAGHER: Two knee injuries, one national tourney

By Tim Gallagher | Sioux City Journal (Missouri)

Erika Woodfin accomplished much before she stepped onto the court at the Tyson Events Center on Thursday for Reinhardt University's opening game in the NAIA Division II Women's National Basketball Championship.

The senior from Trenton, Georgia, scored her 1,000th career point for Reinhardt in the Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament.

Well, lots of programs feature 1,000-point players.

How many of them, though, have battled back from season-ending injuries to both knees? Can't be many. Woodfin is that rare, determined bird. Or, in this case, Lady Eagle.

"To score 1,000 points while missing so many games for us and not being able to redshirt, that says a lot," said Lindsey Huffman, the Reinhardt head coach. "Her ability to come back is incredible."

During her freshman season, toward the end of January, Woodfin said her right knee gave out as she went in for a layup. Two weeks later, doctors repaired her torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). She spent the following 6 1/2 months rehabilitating the knee.

Then, toward the end of her sophomore year, Woodfin dribbled the ball on a fast break. She planted before passing the ball. Her left knee gave out. She tore the ACL and felt as her kneecap slid out of place, result of another ligament tear.

"I knew it," Woodfin said, recalling the pain and immediate sense of frustration that washed over her. "I hit the floor. I was so mad."

Surgery two weeks later addressed the extensive damage. This time, however, her rehabilitation lasted 9 1/2 months. Woodfin suffered through bursitis, tendinitis and "all the -itises," she said with a laugh. "Doctors couldn't get the pain to go away and they wouldn't let me progress until the pain went."

She earned her medical release around Christmas last season. At that point, she said, Coach Huffman had only five players available for play on the active roster, a team beset with injuries.

"I came back and played a lot of minutes because we didn't have a lot of other options," she said. "I remember standing at the free throw line during one of those games and my legs were so weak they were just shaking."

Woodfin, a biology major, pushed herself to get stronger over the summer. The extra work paid off as she was able to log more than 27 minutes per game while leading the Lady Eagles in assists. More importantly, the team shared the conference title and qualified for its first national tournament in four years.

"For once, things have gone OK," she deadpanned.

The team gathered in the locker-room last week to watch the NAIA tournament committee unveil the brackets. When the Reinhardt named flashed on the screen, it touched off a mighty celebration.

"It was one of the coolest moments of our whole season," said Huffman, who went through a pair of knee injuries herself as a collegiate cager at the University of North Georgia.

Huffman, who knew a lot about the pain and disappointment Woodfin faced, said her senior never questioned a return to the court. The games Woodfin missed, in fact, might have helped her become a more complete player, the coach indicated.

"She really loves the game; she watches basketball at the time," Huffman said. "She studies it."

"On the sidelines, I think I began to understand the game more," Woodfin added. "The injuries were probably a blessing. Going through this made me appreciate the game."

And, for her, it's a game and a career that ends at the national tournament, the second berth ever for the 1,500-student school located in Waleska, Georgia. Despite a loss to College of the Ozarks on Thursday, Woodfin relished what she had in bowing out exactly where she hoped to.

Said Woodfin: "This is best year we have ever had."

Erika Woodfin | Photo courtesy of the Sioux City Journal (Missouri)

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